Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Welcome, All You Ornery Boys and Girls”
Romans 7: 15-25a; Matthew 11: 16-19, 25-30
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost-July 9, 2017
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
Central Park West in New York City
I once heard a wise pastor be a bit critical of parents who bring their children to Sunday School just so they can learn how to be good little girls and boys. He wasn’t being grumpy, he simply felt there had to be more. Children must also learn they are not good little girls and boys.
What about us? Have we simply come here this morning to learn how to be good? I hope we have come for more, to tell God the truth about ourselves or, as the church would have it, to confess our sins.
Saint Paul’s genius is his understanding of how hard it is for us to be good, impossible really. You must admit he is on to something when he writes, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
Even when we do something good, Paul suspects we have ulterior motives: we do good for the wrong reasons—so others will take note of how thoughtful and generous we are, how pious and courageous we are. Or how often are we holy, not particularly to help those who are suffering, but to pave our way into heaven.
Don’t Paul’s words ring true for you— “I do not do the good I want”?
One of my favorite Confirmation Class sessions is teaching the Ten Commandments. I love asking kids, “Have you ever sinned?” They always look nervously into their laps. No hands go up until the class misfit raises his—the one the others always point to when trouble occurs. I then ask, “Is Jimbo the only sinner here?” And then, one-by-one, hands are sheepishly raised. I always then tell the class, “If you say you are not a sinner, you are a liar and that makes you a sinner, too.”
Have you ever sinned?
Perhaps the problem is, deep down, we believe we can be perfect. Isn’t that why so many steer clear of the church when troubles arise in our lives—we don’t feel like we measure up to the holy folks! Countless people have said to me behind my closed doors, “Pastor, you are never going to believe this about me.” What I always want to say is, “Just try me. The only thing I refuse to believe is that you are perfect.” It is not because I know them so well but because I know myself so well. Whatever made us think we can be perfect?
We begin almost every worship service with this blunt confession, “We are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.” The church reminds us, even before we have sung the first hymn, that we are here because we are sinners not because we are good boys and girls.
Don’t fret, though, there is more. Even before we sang, “Dearest Jesus, at Your Word,” I declared “the entire forgiveness of all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”—all your sins not just the teensy ones! And, if that is not enough, in a few moments, God will serve us a lunch, not because we deserve it, but because God loves us so much.
The finest Christian communities refuse to prance around in peacock perfection, masquerading as a bunch of goody two shoes who deem themselves holier, more liturgically correct, more socially committed than everyone else. They know better. All they really can admit to is being a motley concoction of broken souls in desperate need of Jesus and they embrace anybody who dares tell a similar truth about themselves.
I love broken churches—broken people, too—those that reflect Alcoholics Anonymous. These folks need help, they need each other, they need God! Such churches walk in the graceful tradition of Saint Paul and Martin Luther.
One of my favorite authors, Frederick Buechner, writes: “When they first start talking at a meeting, they introduce themselves by saying, ‘I am John. I am an alcoholic,’ ‘I am Mary. I am an alcoholic,’ to which the rest of the group answers each time in unison, ‘Hi, John,’ ‘Hi, Mary.’”
Have you ever been to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting or a similar twelve step group?
“They tell where they went wrong and how day by day they are trying to go right. They tell where they find the strength and understanding and hope to keep trying. Sometimes one of them will take special responsibility for another—to be available at any hour of day or night if the need arises. There’s not much more to it than that, and it seems to be enough. Healing happens. Miracles are made.”
Buechner goes on: “You can’t help thinking that something like this is what the church is meant to be and maybe once was before it got to be big business. Sinners Anonymous. ‘I can will what is right but I cannot do it,’ is the way Saint Paul put it, speaking for all of us. ‘For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.’”
“‘I am me. I am a sinner.’
“Hi, every Sadie and Sal. Hi, every Tom, Dick, and Harry. It is the forgiveness of sins, of course. It is what the church is all about.”
God’s possibility begins whenever we are at our wit’s end and have no more tricks in our own paltry bags. We need Jesus. And in that need, Jesus says to us: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
We will soon be served the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation. Amazing really when, only moments ago, we admitted that “we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.” But, that does not seem to matter to Jesus and that, of course, is the gospel: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
So glad you have come here today, you ornery little boys and girls.